Jesus Calls Us to Be Ambitious: An Interview with Andy Crouch, Part 2
Andy Crouch’s book Culture Making was one of the best things we read in 2008. Not that we were surprised. We’ve followed Andy’s work since he became director of the Christian Vision Project at Christianity Today in 2005.
He spoke with us about what it means to be a culture maker in our ordinary jobs.
So how does ambition fit into our work as culture makers? I'm sure you didn't write Culture Making and plan to sell only 5,000 copies. You want it to sell a million copies. So does IVP. How do we wrestle with that paradox?
To be honest, Marcus, I'm not sure I exactly know.
(Laughs) Fair enough.
Temperament is involved here. Personally, I am a strangely unambitious person. I'm driven by other things. But then, I have friends who are just temperamentally ambitious. And, I wouldn't say that I'm right and they're wrong or vice-versa.
Let me put it this way. It's all in what you're ambitious for and in how you're working toward your ambition. In the book, I talk about grace as a marker of God-breathed cultural creativity.
I define "grace" based on Jesus’ parable of the sower. He sowed seed on all kinds of ground. On the best ground, one seed falls in the ground and multiplies 30, 60, or 100 times.
My ambition is to place myself—in the things that I do and the places I go and the kind of cultural creativity I engage in—on the best ground so I will see that kind of abundance.
It's very important to emphasize that abundance doesn't come from my striving. Sometimes ambition and striving are equated so that I’m trying to claw my way into influence. I have not seen that bear good fruit in individual lives or even in the broader culture. But, I have seen people bear good fruit when they are ambitious to be where God is multiplying.
Can you give us an example of that?
I was with a guy who runs a couple of billion-dollar hedge funds a couple of weeks ago. And, I was talking about grace. Afterwards, he said to me, "You've given me language for what we do in our business. We try to invest in places where people are discovering ridiculous abundance that they're not really even responsible for. They're just the prospectors who come across this abundant part of God's creation."
He does green energy investing right now. And he said, “Whenever someone is in the center of delight and surprise and finding unmerited stuff bubbling up from God's created world, that's where we want to invest.”
That seems to me like a very proper ambition.
So some of those green energy companies are making culture in the positive way your book describes?
Oh, I think so. I don't know a lot about this guy's particular business. We talked for about 15 minutes or so.
But, I think this is one of the fundamental commitments we have to make as Christians. God has created an amazingly abundant world. We actually see this in the Genesis creation story—the second creation story in Genesis 2 where it not only describes this lush and abundant garden, but says the gold of that land is good, and the bdellium and onyx stone are there too. “Really?” I think whenever I read that. “Is this a little mineral report for future readers?”
The garden had vegetative abundance, but there were also natural resources under the ground, like gold and onyx, just waiting to be uncovered. As culture makers, we uncover and develop the latent good potential of the world that God's given us.
Western economics operates out of a sense of scarcity. But we operate out of a sense that the world is created to be abundant. And our job is to discover its abundance, not to exploit it, but to do justice to the way that God created it to function.
Let’s change directions a bit. Sometimes our Christian subculture uses a lot of war metaphors. We talk about making war on Christmas or trying to take over Hollywood. Do you think that our subculture is obsessed with working our way into power?
Most of the people I talk to who work in Christian media are engaging and very well-informed, culturally—maybe more so than my prejudices might suggest. But it just fascinates me how consistently they express some combination of fear and hostility toward the wider culture. I would say that our Christian media and Christian industries are unreasonably defensive.
In some respects, Christians do stand in very distinct opposition to our culture. Our culture values some things that Christians cannot value. We have to say, “This is wrong.” And we have to be able to use strong words when we say it.
What are some of the things that we must oppose culturally?
In the Atlantic Monthly from October 2008, Ross Douthat tries to answer the question, "Is pornography adultery?" He gingerly lands on the answer, "Well, yes, kind of, sort of, in a way, well, I guess it may be." (Laughs)
And, I thought, "Can't we say something stronger?" (Laughs) Yes, it is adultery! It’s exactly what Jesus was talking about [in Matthew 5:27-28]. There's nothing to be redeemed about it. It's one of these few cultural goods where you can only say, "This is just wrong. This is not right. Stop!"
There are things that we have to oppose with whatever legitimate means we have.
I read that article. He definitely concludes that pornography is wrong—even if he stops short of calling it adultery.
The Atlantic Monthly itself is conflicted about these things. But we have a lot of allies out there. People are genuinely perplexed, even though they may not have a very firm or clear moral foundation to orient them. When Christians treat them all as adversaries, we're positioning ourselves in the culture to be seen as the opponents. We become the people who are against things. And, that's a very thin basis for legitimacy in a pluralistic, democratic society.
What really grants you credibility and authority in our culture is what you stand for. We want to cultivate and create something really remarkable and good. Too often, we're on defense and that's a losing posture. Instead, we need to create as much as we can without compromising our convictions.
The internet is allowing us to create more than ever before. How do we avoid the internet becoming another “Tower of Babel”?
The Internet is a great cultural good in some ways—right up there with electricity, I suppose. And cultural goods are rarely bad or good. They open up some possibilities that you wish they wouldn't; and they open other possibilities that are really wonderful.
Just within the Christian world—it has helped spread reliable and substantive theological resources for the growing church around the world. Almost everywhere you go in the world, there's an Internet café within an hour's drive.
Pastors can get online at their Internet café and benefit from the same kinds of resources that used to be locked up in libraries in western seminaries. But at the same time, horribly heretical forms of Christianity thrive.
And very exploitative businesses. Global trafficking of people is probably at the highest level it has ever been. More people were trafficked between countries as effective slaves in the 20th century than in all of the centuries of the Atlantic slave trade.
But this is how culture works. You know the possibilities that open up are both wonderful and terrible, usually at the same time.
So cultural creativity or culture making requires cultural maturity. But how do we get that?
Say I want to be mature. What do I do?
We have to let go of the idea that we will be able to create pure cultural goods that will never do any damage.
The reality is we're all going to participate in creating things that, because of sin, will probably be distorted—although, because of grace, they may be developed into more wonderful things than they are now. We have to be willing to say it is in God's hands, ultimately.
So how do we move toward this more mature attitude about our work?
I always go back to the basic disciplines of silence, solitude, and fasting, along with immersion into worshipping God and studying life of the church, studying the story, the Bible that orients us.
On the first day of the week, we immerse ourselves in the true story. We're given the resources through the preaching of the Word and through the sacraments to participate in that story. And we suspend our normal “daily needs.” We turn off the Internet. We set things aside. Twenty centuries of people testify that this is what produces maturity.
You’re talking about Sabbath.
Sabbath becomes tremendously important. One of the biggest threats and challenges in our own culture is this constant frenetic busyness that simply prevents us from ever contemplating what we're creating; why we're creating it; what our ambitions are.
I tell you, if you want to find out the state of your own heart and your ambition, spend some time in silence and solitude. And then, if you really want to find out, go without even just one meal; and you will find out whether your ambition for influence is really driven by a fear of insignificance or a desire for power and control, or whether it's genuinely a desire to be of use to God in the world.
Those things come bubbling up. You can't stop them when you take away all these implements of distraction that we have all around us.
So maturity is when we are not motivated by fear of our own insignificance, but by our desire to do good?
That's right. It's a daily challenge for me. I present at some big Christian conferences, and doubts sometime crowd my mind after such an experience for days afterward . "Did I do a good enough job? I didn't get as much applause as this other person." It's really ridiculous.
How long will it take before I realize that these doubts are not about any objective measure of my influence or power? They are my own fears.
And, that's what the disciplines are for. They cleanse us of useless motivations—that lead to people doing really stupid things to get noticed or to get power or to get wealth. In their place comes the spirit of Christ, who actually prepares us to be very ambitious.
How does Christ call us to be ambitious?
I mean, we pray a very ambitious prayer on a regular basis: "Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven." But, at the same time, we pray a very small prayer: "Give us today our daily bread."
When we pray these prayers together, then we're placing ourselves in the right place to be used by God in what he's doing in the world and the transformation that he's bringing in culture.
>> Read Part 1 of our interview with Andy Crouch about faith, work, and culture.